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J. Singh asked: What's the relation between China and Indonesia? Is it against India?

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  • Joe Thomas Karackattu replies: Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Indonesia and China. While the trivia on the history of bilateral ties can be found online in open-sources, the moot point is the tension, bordering on xenophobia in the past, between ethnic Chinese and indigenous Indonesians in Indonesian society, polity and the economy. This persecution could be traced to Suharto’s coming to power in 1965 – and lasted for close to three decades. It was only with Suharto’s ouster from power in 1998 that free elections were held in Indonesia and the new President (Abdurrahman Wahid) relaxed the restrictions on ethnic Chinese (and celebration of their cultural festivals).

    The period of violence and discrimination described earlier was mirrored in the cold ties between China and Indonesia. Bilateral ties improved in the 1990s, driven by the thrust of China’s rise as an economic engine for the region. Bilateral trade crossed the $30 billion mark last year (China is the second largest trading partner of Indonesia, after Japan).

    Despite the economic push to normalization of ties, the South China Sea territorial disputes remain an outstanding issue of concern between Indonesia and China. Indonesia has preferred to use a hedge strategy by its relationship with the United States (recall Obama’s stop after India was Indonesia), and its participation in ASEAN, actively.

    India and Indonesia are both democracies, with deep historic ties. Recall that in 1947, Sutan Sjahrir (founding father of Indonesia) was flown in to attend the conference of Asian nations in Delhi by Pt Nehru in support of the Indonesian freedom struggle (against the Dutch). Both countries are key economic players in their respective regions (India is the bigger economy, of course). Ideologically and culturally Indonesians remain closer to India – than China. Despite some military-level ties, one would be stretching one’s reasoning and analyses too far if China’s engagement with Indonesia is read as being targeted against India. All three countries have larger development issues to worry about.

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